Alamo Drafthouse Leads in Cinematic Creativity Under Helm of Shelli Taylor
The homegrown movie theater chain’s new CEO focuses on expansion while maintaining its connection to Austin’s core culture
By Britni Rachal
Photos Brittany Dawn Short
A rewarding workout driven by intensity, increased endurance and teamwork — brought together with the calm, yet forceful rippling of water as the sun rises over Lady Bird Lake. At any point of the year, as early as 6 a.m., you can find Alamo Drafthouse’s new CEO, Shelli Taylor, at Texas Rowing Center, exercising the mind and body, ahead of a full day of leading one of Austin’s most loved cinemas.
Both Taylor and her 18-year-old son Rory row in the master’s program, a community of competitive rowers of all ages who prepare for spring and fall race seasons.
“In some ways it’s meditative because you have to be so intensely focused on what you are doing, but what’s most beneficial for me is constantly having to be coached,” says Taylor, adding that the experience is often humbling. No matter how good they are — whether beginner or experts — rowers must constantly fix things, under the guidance of others, in order to grow.
“In my professional role, I don’t get much feedback. Rowing makes me a better leader because it reminds me of what it feels like to receive feedback,” explains Taylor.
Boosting a person’s confidence with good, specific, productivity-building feedback is a priority for Taylor, a key force for creating an empowering atmosphere of teamwork and passion at all of Alamo Drafthouse’s 38 locations across 10 states, including five in Austin.
Taylor moved to Austin in 2018, bringing with her an extensive and impressive background including VP roles at Starbucks in China and Taiwan, a VP role at Disney English in China and C-suite experience at United Planet Fitness Partners. Though she’s lived around the world, Austin quickly made an impactful impression; in fact — one of her initiatives is to use Alamo Drafthouse to help maintain Austin’s core culture, within a rapidly changing city.
“Whether it be your neighbors or people you see in grocery stores, I find that everyone in Austin is truly welcoming and friendly,” said Taylor. “I appreciate the little day-to-day touches. We can’t take this for granted; it doesn’t exist in every city. As we try to retain ‘Austin weird’ we need to also retain Austin’s heart and soul.”
Another initiative for Taylor is to expand upon Alamo’s creative, playful experiences, some which have been unprecedented within the cinema industry. A relentless pursuit of getting everything right — whether the sound or presentation — in amazing team members is also constantly on the minds of Taylor’s team. Currently with around 3,500 employees across the U.S., Alamo is strategic in finding top talent to share their love for great film experiences.
Since opening its first theatre in 1997, memories of Alamo are now embedded within generations of Austinites, who often share their favorite experiences with Taylor. An Alamo “rolling show” which allowed patrons a chance to watch a horror movie in a cave — and an infamous rattlesnake experience that frightened guests with fake rattlesnakes on the floor, after living rattlesnakes visited the theatre earlier — are just some of the stories shared with Taylor and embedded in the memories of long-time fans.
Resiliently navigating through COVID-related obstacles, under Taylor’s leadership, the company continues to expand and will soon open new locations in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Staten Island, and in Houston-area: Sugarland and League City. A “My Alamo” approach is taken at all franchises, aiming to be so hyper-local that the customer experience in each location allows patrons to believe Alamo is locally owned and operated in their city. Taylor also hopes to bring a version of Alamo Austin’s “Fantastic Fest” to each location.
Local dining options are also growing this year in Austin, thanks to longtime chefs, Trish Eichelberger of 17 years and Brad Sorenson of 7 years. Described as big and bold — just like Alamo, a macho chocolate shake is in the works, along with a special buffalo chicken dish, and new, unique takes on both pretzels and popcorn. Movie-goers will also notice a revised return to an old favorite. Pickles are coming back to the menu now that some supply chain issues are resolved.
With this focus on food, drinks, captivating experiences and innovation — Taylor believes the movie theatre industry will continue to win back momentum, as Austin’s locally-based chain helps to drive the way, as a leader in cinematic creativity.